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My wife and I have been discussing how our kids (whenever that may happen) will properly learn both her native language (Russian) and mine (English) while likely growing up in the US or the UK, depending on my job. It's a pretty big concern of ours since her family doesn't speak much English, and we don't want them to not be able to converse with family.

I'm looking for methodical advice pertaining to languages, not parenting advice, so I decided to post here instead of parenting SE...

I've heard some of these tips, but I was hoping for some help to expand the list. Also, maybe some advice on if any of these are bad ideas. I know this is a pretty subjective topic, but I believe that there are objectively good and objectively bad ways to go about it.

  • Wife speaks only Russian at home, and I speak only English (to the kid[s])
  • We both speak only Russian at home, since they will be speaking English everywhere else
  • Send them (at a certain age) to stay with her parents in Belarus during summers
  • Hire private tutors (probably out of the question due to price)

Secondary question: as for the first two, will that confuse the kids into "merging" the languages, or will they pick up that there are two different methods of communication they're using?

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    Asking for "tips" is usually a discouraged approach here at StackExchange as several answers may be equally valid so they become opinionated. Can you please make your question more specific? – bytebuster Jun 1 '16 at 23:02
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  • This question may be better suited to Parenting.SE. – fi12 Jun 1 '16 at 23:46
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    I don't think this question is appropriate for parenting.SE. The topic experts are here, not there. – Flimzy Jun 2 '16 at 6:14
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    @jaska Anecdotal help for your secondary question: my 4yo nephew has been growing up speaking Thai (father's language) and English (mother's language) - they used the first option in your list. For a while now he has effortlessly switched depending on who he is talking to, and he even switches when speaking to Asian or white people. – Tim Malone Jun 2 '16 at 20:21
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Your first question

The best gift you can give your child is for your wife to speak in Russian, and for you to speak in English. I speak by experience.

During the first 4 years of my daughter's life, I spoke to her only in Spanish, my wife spoke to her only in French.

When she was 5 or 6 years old, I started to use French at home but, my wife and I also started to speak English together, only when we had to discuss something about her, like bed time, permissions and so on. She grew very curious. By age 10, she could understand us every time we discuss in English so we had to switch to Spanish when talking about her education.

My girl is now 16, she speak French fluently, very good English with a slight accent and Spanish enough to get along traveling. She also loves languages and has started to learn Chinese and Greek.

Your second question

Your child will not merge both languages. They easily adapt to different ways of communication. The brain of a child is a sponge for languages until age 5 or 6. I once met a 8 years old that could speak with ease French, Dutch, English and Haitian creole. I was living in Port-au-Prince.

Your best source of information is the research by Dr Tomatis a French Doctor who originally worked with deaf people. Check the Europsy center website for scientific explanations about language learning.

Dr. Tomatis research is now used by language schools in Europe. I used the method when teaching English. Check out the Tomatis language Institute for more elaborate answers to your questions.

  • What language did you use to speak to your wife during the first 4 years of your daughter's life? Her French and you Spanish? – ishikun Jun 3 '16 at 23:29
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    Spoke to her in French if alone, in Spanish if my daughter was present. – Armando Jun 4 '16 at 12:43
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    I just want to second this answer. I took a few classes on bilingualism in college, and this is spot on. Parents often worry kids will confuse languages. Doesn't happen that way. They might initially lag behind their monolingual peers (in like Kindergarten), but they easily surpass them a few years down the road. The best solution is for both of you to use only your own native language – Azor Ahai Jun 5 '16 at 8:02
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According to some research and personal experience, I would suggest to use the first option "One adult - one language" for younger children (until the age of 4 or 5). At that stage children do not understand context switching (e.g. speaking one language at home and another one outside). But they adjust well speaking different languages with different adults. The important skill to be learned at this age is to switch easily between the languages. The research suggests that it is switching between languages, rather than speaking only the minority language, is what helps to preserve the minority language in the subsequent years.

Once the child starts school in the dominant language, he/she may start loosing the minority language quickly due to significant time spent speaking the dominant language. At that time you may want to consider switching to speaking only in the minority language at home in order to provide an environment and support for the minority language.

Other good practices to use:

  • Learn new information in the minority language first. For example, learn reading in that language before reading in the dominant language. The child will be more interested in the language, because he/she receives information that is not available in the dominant language.

  • Watch plenty of movies/cartoons in the minority language. The child does not perceive cartoon-watching as language lessons, and is always ready for more new cartoons.

  • Information in the minority language given to the child should be age appropriate. An 8-year old kid would quickly discard a book in the minority language targeting 4-6 year olds. That means that a parent has a difficult job of teaching the language at a near-native capacity for the first 10-12 years.

  • Avoid mixing languages in the same sentence. Being able to complete a thought in one language goes a long way towards improving the language skills.

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Send your child (when around 4 years old) for a long summer vacation (full immersion course) in Russia with grandparents. Your 4 year old child will be fluent in Russian in just 3-4 months, so well that it might take a month to get back to English, and will retain (basic) Russian for many years.

You child's Russian will need to be periodically renewed afterwards (what should not be a problem for your wife), and vocabulary might be limited to a 4-years old (unless consciously expanded). Also, reading/writing has to be learned separately for obvious reasons.

I tried it and it worked reasonably well.

  • When you say "full immersion course" I assume you mean daily interactions, not lessons. Or do you mean lessons too? / In your experience, how long are these skills maintained, and with what maintenance? – SAH Mar 13 '18 at 3:14
  • Tangentially, I am humbled and amazed by the fact you bring that it takes a four year old four months to become fluent in Russian. – SAH Mar 13 '18 at 3:15
  • @SAH - yes of course it is "fluent" for some definition of "fluent": vocabulary is on a child's level, with occasional mistakes (like child would do), but new words are easy to pick up because underlying "feeling" for grammar is there. As you correctly assumed, those were daily interaction, no lessons. Getting food and everything, playing with kids. Skills still present after 20 years, with maintenance being no more than occasional use of the Russian every few months. – Peter M. - stands for Monica Mar 13 '18 at 3:30
  • Wow. Already thinking about where to ship my kid in the future – SAH Mar 13 '18 at 3:33

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